When we’re young, it can be comforting to find ways to make our presence known, to embed a permanent resonance of our existence on earth. When I was in high school, I fulfilled my own teenaged angst cliché, covering my sweatshirts in patches of punk bands I claimed no one else in school knew, while littering my notebooks with their stenciled logos. I wasn’t quite punk enough to scrawl these in trees or on public property, but I still felt like I’d made my mark. For more than four years, renowned Seattle photographer Eirik Johnson has been photographing the youthful carvings in tree trunks in urban wild zones throughout the United States. Shot in large format and entirely at night, Johnson’s series We Were Here preserves luminous imprints of devotion and personal obsession, while exploring a relationship between tenderness and violence.
We Were Here began without intention, in 2011 while Johnson was on a hike with his son through a wooded ravine near Seattle, after returning from several years of teaching in Boston. As the day faded into twilight, Johnson relied on a small flashlight to guide their path down the winding trail, which is when he stumbled, somewhat accidentally, on what would be the first image in his series.
“I felt an emotional tug,” says Johnson, “to know who Lianne was and who had loved her so much they’d felt compelled to carve these words.”
This discovery was part of a fleeting moment, a quick mental note that moved Johnson to return to the spot shortly after to photograph it with his 4x5 camera and embark on a slowed down, long-term project that continues today. Although there is a serial nature to the images, each shot repetitiously from a somewhat scientific, specimen-like vantage point, Johnson’s process transforms these potentially typological images with an elaborate, theatrical process, into monumental totems. “I use a variety of light sources to illuminate the images,” says Johnson, “including gel filters, sparklers, fire, prismatic light and moonlight.” This gives the trees an ethereal glow, but serves as an interactive response to the specific carving. In one image where someone had carved “ALEX IS NUTS” into a tree that had earlier been burned, Johnson used fire to illuminate its surface, which he saw as an appropriate, if not humorous response.
The specific carvings on each tree range from song lyrics and band names to romantic gestures and couples’ initials serving as a promise of love. Johnson describes casting his lens over a broad net of trees, but he’s particularly attracted to those that have a specific and intimate purpose. “I’m drawn to carvings that hover somewhere between tender and violent in sentiment…” says Johnson, " ’Cruel and Tender’, one could say. In addition to whatever words have been carved, I’m also fascinated by the surface of the trees themselves and how they can take on the appearance of an impressionist canvass or lunar landscape.”
For Johnson, these words, regardless of the level of their emotional loadedness, are a symbol of private moments. While the act of carving words into a living organism has aggressive underpinnings, Johnson is moved by its symbolism of escape and intimacy with the natural world.
“More than anything, these are about that point in our youth when we are full of emotion and obsession and want nothing more than to escape down a ravine by the river to carve the name of an unrequited teenage flame, or the lyrics from our favorite band into the trunk of an old tree known only to you.”
The series is tied to Johnson’s memories of adolescence, and escape, as well as his ideas about a more universal understanding of the desire to find an emotional safe-space.The tree serves as a silent listener, a natural confidant in the midst of the chaos of adolescence. “I remember that point in our lives," writes Johnson, "when no one seems to listen to us, with young unrequited love, with obsession, when all you want to do is get away. Whether or not you ever took a blade and carved these secrets into a tree, I do think there’s something universal and romantic in origins of this particular act.”
One of the most impactful lyrics was a line from Bon Iver’s “The Wolves,” which Johnson discovered in an early stage of the project, chiseled deeply into a tree trunk. Johnson was initially unfamiliar, but moved by the line, “The Wild Wolves Around You” carved into a tree deep within urban woods. “I later found that this was a lyric to a hauntingly beautiful Bon Iver song entitled ‘The Wolves,’ writes Johnson. “Soon I was finding other musical referenced carvings, “The Smith’s,” “I Miss Kurt”, even “HER” seemed to allude to an imaginary love song. Now I often hear certain songs in my head while making the pictures."
Just as the project grew out of an unexpected moment, its working title, which serves in many ways as a metaphor for the entire series, came from an unplanned discovery Johnson made while photographing in California. “A year ago,” writes Johnson, “I was in Los Angeles photographing and found the words ‘we were here’ freshly carved into a tree.” Johnson photographed the tree and moved on without giving it much thought. However, when he returned to the location a year later, he was caught by an unexpected evolution. “The tree had begun to heal and the carved words appeared like faint scars on an otherwise smooth surface. It seemed to sum up the project entirely; that desire to proclaim our existence, in opposition to the fact that time passes and things change.”